Ashok Rajamani would like to show you what happens when 100 billion neurons are suddenly overwhelmed by bursting blood vessels. In June 2000, at the age of twenty-five, Rajamani is passing the time in preparation for his brother’s wedding masturbating in his Manhattan hotel room while the rest of his family is out sightseeing. Unbeknownst to anyone, Rajamani suffers a congenital defect in the way arteries and veins in his brain are connected — an arteriovenous malformation — which leads to what he calls a “Hiroshima” hemorrhage the moment he climaxes. (“Those rumors about jerking off were right,” he remembers thinking before he passed out.) The AVM hemorrhage was, according to his doctor, bound to happen sometime, but in his good-humored and self-deprecating memoir, the day my brain exploded (Algonquin, $13.95), Rajamani persists in feeling culpable — for being blinded by God, for ruining his brother’s wedding, and for switching jobs without signing the COBRA form that would have extended his health insurance. The months, then years, following the hemorrhage are a chaos of change, misunderstanding, adaptation, and revelation. Bacterial meningitis, hallucinations, a ventriculostomy, a craniotomy, and a plummeting white-blood-cell count, as well as a savior complex, follow. (“I’m the body of love, I’m the body of love,” Rajamani babbles to his family for weeks on end.)
His recovery takes him to religion — Christ, Krishna, Kali — and to the offices of speech, physical, occupational, and cognitive therapists. The Day My Brain Exploded chronicles his return, not to his normal life (a life in which he had been bullied for being “brainy” before becoming a public-relations whiz and inveterate alcoholic), but to what he calls “a brand new life.” His brain is deceitful, fooling him time after time into thinking that everything has stabilized — even as he suffers seizures and migraines, short-term and emotional memory loss. When, after several years, he starts seeing the people around him, as well as his own reflection, as figures so distorted he can’t bear to look at them, no epileptologist or psychiatrist can cure him; hiding out at home, he comes up with his own diagnosis by means of the Internet — Alice in Wonderland syndrome, also known as lilliputian hallucinations. The doctors pooh-pooh it, but Alice’s adventures help him to decipher his warped visions. Rajamani’s book deals with his drama elegantly, by maintaining a calm tone, and though he initially thinks of himself as a “science class earthworm” — regenerated, but with only a portion of his old self intact — he eventually derives pride from his altered state. “I loved that old guy profoundly,” he sighs. “But I think I love this new fucker just as much. Perhaps even more.”
It only takes a solitary, single, massive explosion to create a completely new universe,” Rajamani tells us; physics in mind: a quantum view of the brain (Basic Books, $28.99) by Werner R. Loewenstein, an emeritus professor of biophysics at Columbia, explores our universe’s alpha explosion, the Big Bang. Loewenstein begins by relabeling the mysterious quantum unit sometimes called energy and sometimes called matter as “information,” explaining that the moment before the Big Bang was the “moment when the information of the universe was concentrated in a minuscule speck — all the information there was and ever would be.” A moment later, the explosion, and after that, entropy — then the condensation of information into smaller and smaller structures (galaxies, stars, planets, brains). The job of an organism 13 billion years on, according to Loewenstein, is to organize the available information in a way that preserves its ephemeral being for as long as possible.
But “the mind is frontier territory,” he writes, “lying uneasily at the border of science and philosophy,” and so this absorbing account brings in, along with many scientists, Immanuel Kant and John Updike, Philip Roth and Lewis Carroll. If Rajamani’s reality was upended by his syndrome, the reader’s will be upended by Loewenstein’s picture of what integrates the nature of the universe with the nature of the organ that senses and strives to understand it. Though Loewenstein occasionally errs with jokey hat tips to “Lady Evolution” (“I don’t know who audits her accounts, but whoever does, needs no red ink”), his book is vital and wide-ranging, exploring everything from the structure of time to the phenomenon of gut feelings, the color of white and the reach of our senses, and why we’ve adapted to notice the anomaly rather than the norm. Included are discourses on retrieving a lost dimension, the language of mathematics (unlike Alice’s world, “stringently coded, logically self-consistent, and capable of apprehending the reciprocal relationships between things”), and the persistent enigma of consciousness. Loewenstein’s conception of the brain in terms of quantum physics gives us a way to understand its capacity to process “truly astronomical amounts of information”; what we end up with is an image of the mind as a computational machine.
Loewenstein describes a recent experiment in which scientists monitored the electrical activity of cells in the brain while subjects were shown pictures of various animals, people, and buildings:
The results could hardly have been more dramatic: one cell, for instance, would specifically respond to the image of President Bill Clinton; it fired off volleys of electrical pulses when the subject was shown a photograph of Clinton, but not when photographs of other U.S. Presidents, famous athletes, or unknown persons were shown.
These cells reappear in Sebastian Seung’s connectome: how the brain’s wiring makes us who we are (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $27) — though Seung’s are more partial to firing for Jennifer Aniston and Halle Berry than for the forty-second president. (“The neuron is my second-favorite cell,” writes Seung. “It’s a close runner-up to my favorite: sperm.”) Like Physics in Mind, Seung’s book impresses the reader with the gangly complexity of our brains, whose networks are “something like the flight maps we see in the back pages of airline magazines.” Our unique structure of cell interaction he calls a “connectome” (modeled after “genome”), and if Loewenstein wants to show how these networks came to be, Seung, a generation younger and a professor of computational neuroscience at MIT, is more concerned with what we might do with them in the future. He looks at phantom limbs, phrenology, syphilis, schizophrenia, the wild boy of Aveyron, and a psychologist named George Stratton who in 1897 spent eight days with inverting lenses strapped to his head, seeing the world upside-down and reversed, to show that his brain could adjust to it.
Seung locates consciousness not in the anatomy of individual neurons but in the architecture of their connections — and for him, the diagnostic is how death is defined, a definition that has shifted in the past generation owing to medical technologies that preserve respiration and circulation even after the brain has become “discolored, soft, or partially liquified.” If a brain ceases to function, Seung asks, are its memories and predilections still present in its structure, waiting to be reanimated by some future process? To answer that question, he examines brain pickling and corpse freezing, plastination and cryogenics, and almost convinces by being convinced. He’s generally buoyant about technological progress, calling the iPhone a modern marvel on par with the Miracle of the Sun in Fátima and claiming that it’s “no exaggeration to compare uploading with ascension to heaven.” Standing by the dubious notion that everything possible is also inevitable, he urges us to alter ourselves, or our brains, with the four r’s — reweighting, reconnection, rewiring, and regeneration. “Personal change — educating yourself, drinking less, saving your marriage,” he writes in the introduction, “is about changing your connectome.” For what you can’t change, he offers an old rhyme:
For every ailment under the sun
There is a remedy, or there is none;
If there be one, try to find it;
If there be none, never mind it.
So, essentially, goes the conclusion of Aaron James’s assholes: a theory (Doubleday, $23.95), which deals with a problem neuroscientists cannot solve. James is a philosophy professor at the University of California, Irvine, and also a surfer, dual vocations that have prompted many discussions about newcomers who aggressively horn in, endanger others, lack remorse, and resist any sort of correction. James neatly does what philosophers must do: he defines his terms, organizes and codifies, declares his own loyalties; he locates himself on the spectrum of assholery and suggests origins both psychological and sociological. The result is a delightful combination of the demotic and the technical: “It remains an open question whether the person at issue really is an asshole, whether he is best classified as that type of person. Perhaps he is better classified as a jerk, a schmuck, or douche bag, or just someone who is insensitive to social cues.”
James is simultaneously putting us on with a bit of “tomfoolery” and being perfectly serious. He specifies the damage that assholes do (to our status in groups and our right to be acknowledged). He speculates on historical and modern asshole typology, calling out Noel Gallagher, of the rock band Oasis (a “boorish asshole”), before moving on to Gustave Flaubert and Bernard-Henri Lévy (“For smugness . . . there is of course no place like France”). He discusses political assholery, comparing and contrasting George W. Bush, Newt Gingrich, and Silvio Berlusconi (“our paradigmatic asshole of public life”). And he is ideologically evenhanded, considering Dick Cheney but also Ralph Nader and John Edwards. No women, however, seem to qualify — a puzzle James addresses by setting aside the conundrum of Ann Coulter and exploring the difference between bitches and assholes.
“Assholes, then, are made and not born,” he concludes. “They are made by a society’s gender culture. A newborn boy in the United States or Italy or Israel is much more likely to live the life of an asshole than a newborn boy in Japan or Norway or Canada.” Asshole management, we come to see, is a pressing concern for us — more so than for those fortunate Norwegians. And so, after rows between philosophers (subchapters such as “Hobbes Beats Marx” and “Rousseau Beats Hobbes”), James gives us some practical advice for confronting assholes, for maintaining self-respect and social position in a world full of them. And he ends, in a letter to the asshole, with some tips for giving up the asshole life: “My Friend,” it begins, “I write hoping to persuade you to change your basic way of being.”